A Small Country With a Big Heart: Bangladeshi BRAC’s Rohingya Refugee Initiative

Areebah Ahmed, COL ’26, Dallas, TX

This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to travel over 8,000 miles to my mother country, Bangladesh. Over the time I was there, I traveled back and forth between Dhaka, where my mother is from, and Cox’s Bazar, a small city on the Southeastern coast of Bangladesh. In the week that I was in Dhaka, I got a small glimpse into the incredible impact of the company I was going to be working with, BRAC.

Sitting on the rooftop of the 20-story building overlooking the entirety of Bangladesh, I read about the beginning stages of BRAC. Not long after the Bangladeshi Liberation War in 1971, Fazle Hasan Abed founded the organization to help Bangladeshi refugees returning from India with various projects like boat-building, home construction, and medical centers. Now, the organization’s projects are well disseminated across Bangladesh, from BRAC University to BRAC Bank, to a Bangladeshi handicraft store, Aarong. Not only this, but they have several welfare projects all over Bangladesh like helping rural farmers how to raise livestock or teach rural women, who would otherwise be unemployed, handicraft work. Specifically, I had the opportunity to work in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, which houses around 1 million refugees, according to the United Nations Population Fund! As a comparison, the Rohingya refugee population in Cox’s Bazar is the same as the population of Delaware, and is 1/276 of the land size. Talk about a small city with a big heart! After learning the huge impact of BRAC on Bangladesh in Dhaka, I flew over to Cox’s Bazar for the remainder of my time to learn about disaster relief and BRAC’s groundwork in the Rohingya camps. 

The first week in the BRAC Humanitarian Crisis Management Programme in Cox’s Bazar, I learned how the humanitarian response was organized in a way to attack the wide-ranging issues that the refugees dealt with. The program has 11 sectors: WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), Shelter, Health, Nutrition, (SMS) Site Management Support, Education, Protection, Child Protection, Food Security, and Community Communication. I specifically focused on Protection, which revolved around Legal Assistance, Gender-Based Violence, and Community-Based Protection. As someone interested in gender-based discrimination and pursuing the law route, I got to focus on both of these sub-sectors. 

I found it fascinating how BRAC provided services to the Rohingya community while avoiding the devaluation of them as people: their unusual designation as forcibly displaced Myanmar citizens makes them particularly vulnerable to human rights violations: while they are not accepted as Bangladeshi citizens, Myanmar surely doesn’t consider them one of their own either. This leaves the Rohingya refugees in an incredibly dire and vulnerable position, susceptible to harm.

The first program I got to learn about was the Legal Assistance program: legal assistance is part of the Protection sector, which focuses on providing assistance to refugees through mediation, arbitration, and counseling, which are their informal means, which help refugees come to an agreement between two parties.  BRAC provides lawyers, and associate lawyers, employs paralegals from within the camps to assist with this legal process, and has recovered 45 million USD through resolving disputes outside of court.

 Additionally, part of the legal assistance program is helping those refugees whose cases are not able to be resolved through informal means. This formal mediation is provided through offering lawyers, who provide information to refugees about seeking justice from the court or police for more severe circumstances. A particular challenge though, is trying to motivate those seeking justice for severe issues to access courts or the police, and often these refugees would rather resolve their issues through mediation. A way forward from this challenge is to destigmatize seeking help through courts and make it as convenient for refugees as possible to seek formal help, whether it be in regards to legal advice or even things like transportation to court, which BRAC already provides. Another way that BRAC could destigmatize seeking formal assistance is by highlighting circumstances where a person successfully sought justice through the court system. By informing the refugees of these situations, they could similarly want to seek justice in this way as well.

The second program I had the opportunity of detailing was the Gender-Based Violence (GBV) program as part of the Protection sector. This program was extremely thorough: the GBV volunteers work in empowering women in numerous means: from providing facilities for them to learn entrepreneurship skills, homemaking skills, or even teaching them how to cook. Not only does BRAC provide these skill trainings, though: they offer opportunities for women to utilize the skills they’ve learned firsthand, through the Women’s Market. The Women’s Market is a one-of-a-kind place where refugees and host communities alike are able to sell their handcrafted block-print saris, bags, or even salon services. Another facility that the GBV program provides is Women Friendly Spaces, which are areas that offer services like breastfeeding spaces, lessons on sexual and reproductive health, midwife facilities, and even counseling. 

A challenge that arises within these facilities when women seek help, though, is the fact that many women or even men cannot define abuse. Very often, women do not consider the verbal abuse that they face as proper abuse, or even issues regarding simple hurt, like slapping. A way forward that the GBV program has already begun to provide is hosting sessions on the definitions and impact of abuse and violence. These people are trained to recognize telltale signs of abuse or neglect, like distancing themselves from society. Programming also teaches them to understand what is considered abuse, and hosts sessions on how to approach experiencing violence, witnessing violence, or counseling in response to committing violence against another.

Additionally, a strong way forward that BRAC has developed are 2 programs: the Girl Shine program and the Men and Boys programme, both of which deal with unteaching culturally misogynistic ideas to the younger generation, and instead teaches them to be role models to their communities by attacking issues like gender-based violence, sexual violence and exploitation, and child marriage.  Both of these teach adolescent girls and boys to be vulnerable, to be self-sufficient, to ensure a stronger, well-equipped generation.

Lastly, I learned about the Child Protection program, which focused on prevention and response services. I had an opportunity to visit the Humanitarian Play Labs, which are facilities for small children aged 0-6 to learn important life skills, and utilizes activities to increase metacognition. Something particularly fascinating about the way that BRAC arranges their curriculum is that they use all materials for school sourced by Myanmar. Their particular emphasis on cultural preservation was clearly seen through these play labs, as they even played Burmese children’s games.

Undoubtedly, I’ve learned a lot of things about how non-governmental organizations structure themselves in order to ensure the most comprehensive support they could possibly give to refugees. I gained a lot of first-hand experience in being able to understand how refugees operate within these camps, and I’m looking forward to being able to do more groundwork like this in the future!

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2023 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here

By Career Services
Career Services